The Palio di Siena, one of the most famous horse races in the world, takes place twice a year, on July 2nd and August 16th.
The city of Siena (Pop: 54,000) is divided into 17 contrade (wards/districts) and 10 of the contrade take part in each race. The seven contrade that were not selected for one race are automatically included in the next. The additional 3 participants are drawn by lot. It is therefore possible for a contrada to win both races in the same year, an achievement known as a 'cappotto'. Since 1900 this has been achieved by only three contrade: Tartuca (1933), Giraffa (1997), Lupa (2016).
The horses are allocated by lot, but the jockeys (fantini), who ride bareback, are hired by the contrade. The race takes place in the Piazza del Campo, where a thick bed of tuff, clay and sand has been laid around the perimeter. The horses must make three laps of the piazza and the whole race usually lasts no more than about 80 seconds.
A jockey is allowed to use his whip (nerbo, a stretched and dried bull's pizzle) not only for his own horse, but also for striking other horses and riders. The race can be won by a horse minus its rider; such a horse is known as a cavallo scosso.
The winning contrada is awarded a banner, the much-coveted palio. The palio (also known as the drappellone) is a long rectangular piece of silk, hand-painted by an artist for the occasion, which is mounted on a pole, topped by a silver plate with two black and white (the colours of Siena) plumes draped down the sides. The palio remains the property of the contrada; the silver plate belongs to the city and is returned before the start of the next palii.
The July race, which was first run in 1656, is known as the Palio di Provenzano and is held in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano. The August race, which was run for the first time in 1701, is known as the Palio dell' Assunta and is held in honour of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
The most successful contrada has been the Nobile Contrade dell' Oca, which, at the time of writing, has chalked up a grand total of 63 wins.
The contrada that has gone the longest time without a victory is nicknamed la nonna (the grandmother). The current holder of this title is the Contrada dell' Aquila, which last won on July 3rd, 1992.
A spectacular two-hour procession, the corteo storico, with the participants in historical costume, precedes each race.